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Online spaces: The new frontier

Big names from virtual worlds meet up to envision future of online environments from "WoW" to MySpace.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--As users of Web 2.0 communications and game tools go, Joi Ito is the power user's power user.

Take the incredibly complex environment that's on-screen on his MacBook Pro. Ito--a tech investor who has put money into well-known outfits such as Technorati--constantly has his instant-message software open, with hundreds of friends available to chat, along with nearly 100 people live on IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. And he and his friends spend a good deal of time in the virtual world "Second Life."

But where Ito's heart truly lies, it seemed obvious from his keynote address at SDForum's "Virtual Worlds--The Rules of Engagement" conference here Thursday, is with his "World of Warcraft" guild, a group that includes several tech industry executives and venture capitalists and that numbers more than 250 people, dozens of whom are always available to play and communicate with.

"I think MySpace is definitely a virtual world. Things like MySpace, which are big flourishing communities--what they lose in 3D experience, they make up in high degree of interoperability."
--Reuben Steiger, CEO,
Millions of Us

Because "WoW" doesn't have its own built-in voice software, Ito's guild uses a third-party application called TeamSpeak, which allows members to talk to each other live, regardless of whether they're playing the game.

"The thing about TeamSpeak is it's always on," Ito told the audience at the Computer History Museum. "I have it on in the background at home when I'm cooking. I can hear people talking in the background. It's like being in a big room in an office together where you stand up and ask someone a question."

Ito's point, made during a talk titled "The Future of the Metaverse," was that the future of connected communications goes far beyond any one or two applications. Instead, Ito suggested, people may well find themselves moving back and forth between many different applications, often with the same people, having ongoing conversations as they move.

To the uninitiated, online games and virtual worlds may seem to be child's play, or at least little more than entertainment. The attendees here would beg to differ.

That's because "WoW" has grown to 6 million subscribers worldwide and "Second Life" to nearly 200,000 users trading more than $5 million a month in virtual goods. Fortune 500 companies, meanwhile, are lining up to create branded environments in the spaces.

Then there's the social-networking service, MySpace, and its 70 million users. It's clear that the virtual world community covets such a committed user base.

Many of the 95 attendees at Thursday's conference are highly influential in the virtual-worlds community. They included Philip Rosedale, CEO of "Second Life" publisher Linden Lab; Daniel James, CEO of "Puzzle Pirates" publisher Three Rings; the CEO of 3D instant-message application publisher IMVU; former Sony Online Entertainment chief creative officer Raph Koster; and There.com founder Will Harvey.

And befitting a conference about virtual worlds, at least 80 more people joined the event--which included panels titled "The Virtual World Value Chain," "Navigating the Road Ahead" and "In-World Culture" (disclosure: this reporter moderated this panel)--from inside "Second Life," where it was being simulcast. The "Virtual Worlds--The Rules of Engagement" event is just the latest in a series of conferences and symposiums covering the social, economic and legal issues surrounding online games and virtual worlds.

Others have included State of Play, held each fall at New York Law School, the Austin Game Conference and the Metaverse Roadmap Summit, which will be held Friday and Saturday in Palo Alto, Calif.

On Thursday, there were more than a dozen venture capitalists in the room, a clear sign that investors are looking at virtual worlds as real opportunities to make money.

Some here argued that the view of virtual worlds as potentially profitable ventures makes a conference like this much more attractive than it could have been even a year ago. One attendee even said he thought the conference couldn't have happened at all until very recently, a sign that people beyond the inner circles of virtual-world companies are taking the space more and more seriously.

And part of that is what appears to be a real willingness by those deep in the virtual-world community to examine what they need to do to make online games, as well as metaverses like "Second Life," more attractive to mass audiences. Which brings the talk around to the massively successful MySpace.

While virtual-worlds enthusiasts acknowledge that MySpace and its ilk aren't games, and aren't virtual worlds the way that "WoW," "EverQuest," "Second Life" and others are, they do feel that the sense of community developed through virtual spaces means there are more similarities than many would think.

"I think MySpace is definitely a virtual world," said Reuben Steiger, CEO of a start-up called Millions of Us that hopes to build a business around creating dynamic projects in "Second Life" and other 3D environments. "Things like MySpace, which are big flourishing communities--what they lose in 3D experience, they make up in high degree of interoperability."

Steiger said that he'd like to see the spectrum of virtual worlds--"Second Life," "WoW," MySpace and so forth--move closer together by adding tools on each side that can give users more choices, more ability to interact on meaningful three-dimensional levels and more social-networking elements.

The more the tools, the greater the flexibility people will find in virtual worlds. That's important, Ito suggested, because such flexibility could give people the scope to engage in complex interactions regardless of whether they feel like going questing in a game like "WoW," hanging out in "Second Life" or having simple text chats as they can with instant messaging.

All told, he explained, such a wide variety of options for communications gives people what he called "polychromic time," the ability to have ongoing persistent conversations with many different people, independent of applications and time.

In the end, the conference Thursday was not a place where people were discussing any particular big new ideas. Instead, it was a forum where a number of ongoing conversations that have been held at a collection of previous events coalesced under one roof. And to those in attendance, the very fact that people are willing to continue those conversations and take these issues seriously is a very important thing.